Oral Language: The Foundation of Literacy

Telling stories

In the history of human development, oral language—conversation, poetry, story-telling, and song—arose long before written language. In children we see the same pattern of language development. Children first learn to listen, to speak, to sing, to enjoy rhymes, stories, and books before they can read or write. What we often forget is that this foundation in oral language is a critical step in developing literacy.

Professor Barry Sanders, well known for his book, A Is for Ox—a title which refers to the Phoenician system of using pictures for sounds—describes eloquently the importance of the oral language development. In summary, he says: “A person’s success in orality determines whether he or she will ‘take’ to literacy.”

Given this importance of developing good oral language, how can parents, teachers, and caregivers support a child’s success in developing it?

One of the key times when children develop language is during their free play. In play children make use of everything they know. As psychologist Lev Vygotsky expressed so beautifully, children “stand a head taller” when they are at play. This includes their use of language. In play they feel free to try out new words and ways of speaking. Sarah Smilansky, a noted researcher of children’s play, compared kindergarten children who were strong in socio-dramatic play with those who were weaker in it. The stronger ones showed stronger abilities in speaking as well as in understanding others.

Fortunately, children are highly motivated to learn language from a young age. There are various theories about how they learn language, but anyone working with children sees clearly that most children are strongly attuned to language and devour it eagerly. When that’s not the case, there is often cause for concern. This does not mean that all children begin saying “Mama” by age one, or speak two word sentences by two and more complex ones by three. My own mother often commented that I said very little until I was three. When she asked the pediatrician about this he remarked that he was confident I would soon begin speaking and never stop. According to my mother, that is just what happened!

Infants and toddlers are deeply interested in language. Most parents instinctively understand this and surround their infants with warm, loving language. Often called motherese or parentese, language directed to infants and toddlers tends to be higher pitched, more musical, and slower than language addressed to older children or adults. It doesn’t need to be exaggerated and made ultra-sweet as it sometimes is, but musical enough for infants to bask in its warmth. It’s related to the whole field of lullabies and nursery rhymes which infants and toddlers also love.

Oral Language
Infants need to be surrounded with warm, loving language

Recent research affirms the importance of nursery rhymes for young children, finding that they contribute to phonemic awareness—the recognition of sounds and the breakdown of language into sound units or syllables. Such awareness is an important component of learning to write and read. Even before they can speak, young children indicate their attunement to nursery rhymes. I recall doing “This little piggy went to market” with a neighbor’s nine-month-old. She was in her stroller with bare feet on a hot summer’s day. As soon as I finished she lifted her foot with a clear message: Do it again. I did it several times before she was satisfied. I’ve had similar experiences with many children who were not yet speaking clear words but were intrigued by the rhymes, rhythm, and gestures of nursery rhymes.  

The oft-cited research of Risley and Hart found that, by age three, children in low-income homes heard 30 million words less than children from more affluent homes. This is a lag that needs to be addressed. Exposure to good oral language—conversation, rhymes, songs, and stories—helps a great deal. For additional suggestions on how to overcome the word gap, see NAEYC’s “The Word Gap: The early years make the difference.”  [http://www.naeyc.org/tyc/article/the-word-gap]

As a preschool/kindergarten teacher I focused on oral language at different times throughout the morning. I did not like to drown children in words but at snack and meal times I might tell a little story from my life and the children responded with stories of their family, pets, trips, and the like. We learned how to engage in the art of conversation, and this meant listening to each other as well as speaking.

We used rhymes and songs in transition times to weave the parts of our day together. Some rhymes were said each day at the beginning of circle time. These varied over time so that the children learned many in the course of the year. They were a wonderful way to gather the children’s attention for the seasonal circles that followed. Sometimes we acted the nursery rhymes out as in “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candle stick.” The children formed a line and merrily took turns jumping over the candle stick at the right moment.

Sometimes I heard children discussing a nursery rhyme, as we might discuss a piece of literature. On one memorable day, four-year-old Adam spoke to a friend about Humpty Dumpty. “I don’t think Humpty Dumpty fell,” said Adam. “You don’t?” replied his friend, in a tone implying a great heresy had been spoken. “No, I think he jumped!” Adam was certainly a child who jumped into life, undaunted by the many difficulties he faced. He was not an easy child to work with but one I treasured for his fierce spirit.

Oral Language
Rhymes and songs can weave the day, the seasons, and the children's experiences together

Fairy tales were also a regular part of our school day. Just as one wants teens to have a solid background in the world’s great literature, I wanted my young children to be well versed in the tales that have been part of children’s culture for centuries. Great stories enrich feelings, stimulate the imagination, and help shape our outlook in life. For young children fairy tales affirm that, yes, there are difficulties in life but we have the courage, strength, and steadfastness to meet them. And while our strength alone may not be enough, there are wonderful beings who come to our aid—kindly dwarves and animals, wise old men and women, and children themselves. The world of fairy tales is full of wonderful beings as well as evil ones. They strengthen the child’s inner confidence that while terrible things sometimes happen, life is nevertheless good.

Today’s children are heavily immersed in the characters of television and other screens. Whether they derive the same nourishment from them—or merely experience their captivating entertainment—remains to be seen, but I am skeptical. I have never seen any modern programming that rivals the depth and richness of fairy tales, told simply and well, which children absorb deeply.

I generally taught mixed age classes of three to six-year-olds and enjoyed the different responses of the age groups to fairy tales. The preschoolers usually sat with mouths open and their little feet might shuffle on the rug. One felt them drinking the stories in, all the way to their toes, much like an infant drinks its mother’s milk and wiggles its toes. Oh, those stories tasted so good!

The kindergarten children listen with mouths closed and one can practically see the images of the stories flit across their minds’ eye. The door to image making—imagination—has opened for them and they can see the stories. Many go home and tell the stories after hearing them a few times.

Oral Language
Kindergarten children retell the stories to their family and friends after hearing them a few times.

For preschoolers, the difficulties of the tales are mild as in the Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks, or the Gingerbread Man. In such tales there is a repeating sequence of events and the rhythm of the story helps capture the children’s attention. There are tales in which creatures come to live together as in The Mitten, and there are tales in which the abundance of life overcomes poverty as in Sweet Porridge. I remember telling this tale to a group of children who were homeless. They sat up at attention at the line, “One day there was no food left in the house to eat.” They knew this situation intimately and seemed especially satisfied by the little pot that always filled itself with sweet porridge “as if it wanted to feed the whole world.”

Kindergarten children are ready for stronger tales in which some evil rears its head but courage and goodness are victorious. Little Red Riding Hood is a good example, but there is no need to dramatize it. The wolf is scary enough as it is for young children, and the line, “And then he swallowed the Grandmother whole” can be said in a calm and quiet way. This age group loves Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, and dozens of others drawn from cultures around the world.

In my mixed-age classes I varied the tales, telling a simple tale repeatedly for about a week and the more complex stories for two weeks. The older children saw the humor in the little tales and were not bored by them, and the young children drank in what they could from the more complex tales, content in the presence of their older classmates who absorbed the stories deeply.

There is yet another level of complexity and strength of evil in tales that are better saved for first grade such as the Norwegian tale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon. For some years I volunteered at an inner city school and did painting and story telling with the first graders once a week. One day the teacher told me she had had a parent evening and the parents wanted to know what happened on Mondays. Their children came home from school, gathered up their siblings and cousins, sat them down and said, “Now I’m going to tell you a quiet story.” They would then tell the fairy tale they had heard that day.

I was deeply impressed, for fairy tale language is complex and the stories I told were not simple. Yet these first graders from very low income families were repeating the tales after a single hearing. What a wonderful way to overcome the language gap and develop oral language skills, and at the same time be strengthened by tales with great meaning.

 

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About the Author Almon

Joan Almon

Joan Almon co-founded the Alliance for Childhood in 1999 and served as its director until 2012, when she continued to serve the Alliance as director of programs.

Joan worked tirelessly as an advocate and wrote and lectured extensively on child development, early education, and the need to restore play for children and youth with a special focus on the need for play-based learning in preschools and kindergartens. She wrote many articles and chapters in books and co-authored the Alliance for Childhood report, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. More recently, Joan compiled and edited Playing It Up-With Loose Parts, Playpods, and Adventure Playgrounds to highlight unique and impactful play opportunities across the U.S

Joan was formerly a Waldorf early childhood educator who taught for 18 years in Maryland and then consulted with schools around the world. Her concern for childhood on the global level never waned, and she worked to highlight the needs of children worldwide and the wonderful programs serving children. At the end of her life, Joan was working on a book to be called, Learning with Children. Though incomplete, it will be published. 

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  • Susan Simmons

    Joan, I truly appreciate your articles and this one in particular. I remember enjoying fairy tales and agree with your views on their importance for young children's language development. I wonder if you receive comments regarding any "negative impact" to children due to the evil characters that usually have a role in the traditional fairy tales. I'm often dismayed at the concern some of our teachers have with reading "Little Red Riding Hood" as if we were doing harm to the children. Can you give me your thoughts?

  • Edna R. Ranck

    Hi, Joan: Thanks for this contribution to ECE literature. I just finished reading Peggy Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" so I am primed for fairy tales. Hope our paths cross soon. I always appreciate your thoughts on children's education. --Edna

  • Lori

    I must admit, I do change the fairy tales a bit so they are not quite so violent. When we talk about the big, bad wolf in Red Riding Hood, he simply puts Grandma in the closet. With the little pigs, they run to another house when their house gets blown down. I don't think the children need the stories to be so scary. They are still quite captivated and love to retell them or act them out. However, the gingerbread man does get eaten at the end by the clever fox, but after all--he is just a cookie. The children in my class thoroughly enjoy stories, whether fairy tales, stories from my childhood or stories we invent together--it's all such a great exercise in conversation, literacy and community.

  • Natalie Kiefer

    I too would like to hear your comments on any negative impact that fairy tales may have on children. I enjoyed this article very much and plan to read more fairy tales to my preschool class this summer and during the school year. Thank you.

  • Joan Almon

    I appreciate everyone's comments about the article and especially about fairy tales. I do understand the concern about the scarier parts of tales. I had many of the same concerns when I first began telling them and avoided certain stories if I could not overcome my concerns. As adults we bring many associations to the tales and this may color the way we tell or read the stories - adding fright or drama to certain scenes. It's best to work through our own feelings about the tales before we bring them to the children, so that they can live with the purer archetypes. For a young child the wolf is not so strongly associated with a physical wolf as with the forces in life that tempt us to stray from the path of goodness and then leave us uneasy about the actions we've taken. Yes, grandmother is swallowed whole through no fault of her own, but she is revived with the help of the good huntsman and the cake and wine brought to her by Little Red Riding Hood. Going into the closet may seem milder (although children often have fears about dark closets) but the image of healing and resurrection is not nearly as powerful. I would argue that today's children need strong pictures of healing and redemption -- just think of the dystopian literature they devour as teens. Their souls are wrestling with mighty forces. Some children are frightened by the fairy tales, although I never had a parent tell me that was the case with any children in my classes. I think the fear comes from the dramatization of the tales. I remember doing a small fairy tale performance at a preschool I was visiting. One child entered the room terribly frightened because of past experiences with scary tales. By the end of the story she was smiling broadly and no longer clinging to her teacher. It's so important that we feel comfortable with the story, tell it in a calm but warm way, and choose stories well suited to the age group we have. Also, in the beginning I was terrified of telling a fairy tale and read books to the children instead. Then I told a simple fairy tale - the mother goat and her seven kids - and it was as if all the space between the children and me disappeared. It was such a beautifully intimate experience. I've been hooked on telling fairy tales ever since!

  • Sara Logan

    Joan, thank you for this great article. I'm putting together a curriculum for an early childhood program centered on storytelling, and this is just the kind of supportive material I want to offer the teachers to help explain *why* storytelling is so important, and indeed, why it is of of our ideal vehicles, along with free play and real work, for teaching and learning with young children!

  • Lori

    Joan, I appreciate your feedback and all that you do to keep play in childhood. I must say that in the age-group that I work with--3-5 year olds--the children view the wolf, for example, as a physical creature and not as a metaphor for the forces of life. These themes of healing and resurrection are much too deep for them. The children are very literal and I will continue to soften the stories to keep them less intense.

  • susan milligan

    Loved your article! I am a storyteller in a nursery school. I often do change fairy tales to make them less violent, but, interestingly, when the children tell me their own versions of stories many like to put in scary parts. A typical plot will find the protagonist eaten by a villainous beast of some sort followed by the protagonist escaping by punching or cutting a hole in the beast's belly. Usually the beast ends up dead. Some children enjoy acting out the role of the beast including dying on stage but many are too afraid to play a bad guy and don't want to pretend to die.

  • Shelley Ekmanis

    I always remembered how much I loved storytelling as a child. My grandpa was a great storyteller. His stories were usually about growing up in the olden days, but I was afraid of oral storytelling with my preschoolers because I did not feel very confident and because almost all of them were English language learners. But about 6 or 7 years ago I decided to try it with some little props that I made or found in the classroom. I thought that I will have an easier time keeping the attention of the children if I had props. It turns out they loved it and even the little ones were glued to the action. The real surprise came 2 years ago (when I had the full day class for the first time) after I had told Goldilocks - its usually the first oral story I tell. At nap time, an older child who spoke English pretty well, asked me if I would tell the story of Goldilocks instead of playing music. I was kind of skeptical because of the little ones who did not have much exposure to English yet and because I couldn't use the props, but I tried it. It was so quiet at nap time! Like they didn't want to miss anything. It made me so happy. Now I can really see the benefits, even if I am not the best story teller. The children always pay great attention to new stories and remember little details to help in the retelling and continue to ask for stories at nap time.

  • Lois Ingellis

    Joan; Arlene Rider & I were going to submit a similar article to expand on what we wrote back in March, but your article has confirmed everything we were going to highlight. One thing I have learned is to stay away from video, DVD's and visuals for the nursery rhymes. I think Bruno Bettelheim stated that the children can only imagine these as scary as they can handle when we 'tell' them. We have found this to be true, but we also have learned not to over dramatize our voices. I did scare my own grandchild years ago with my 'wicked witch' act. Much needed conversation!

  • Barbara

    I loved nursery rhymes as a child many years ago. I love to see the encouragement of teaching and learning nursery rhymes. I felt it was a teaching tool that was being forgotten. My toddlers has learned many such as Hickory Dickory Dock and Humpty Dumpty. I usually use visuals and actions as we sing or say them.

  • Lynne Pabst

    I am so happy to see someone with the same view as I have of the importance of storytelling and oral tradition before written tradition. I am so concerned about the emphasis placed on reading and putting books in to the youngest of hands while ignoring the role and art of storytelling in the literacy puzzle.

View Comments 12
Close

Comments (12)

Leave a Comment
  • Susan Simmons

    Joan, I truly appreciate your articles and this one in particular. I remember enjoying fairy tales and agree with your views on their importance for young children's language development. I wonder if you receive comments regarding any "negative impact" to children due to the evil characters that usually have a role in the traditional fairy tales. I'm often dismayed at the concern some of our teachers have with reading "Little Red Riding Hood" as if we were doing harm to the children. Can you give me your thoughts?

  • Edna R. Ranck

    Hi, Joan: Thanks for this contribution to ECE literature. I just finished reading Peggy Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" so I am primed for fairy tales. Hope our paths cross soon. I always appreciate your thoughts on children's education. --Edna

  • Lori

    I must admit, I do change the fairy tales a bit so they are not quite so violent. When we talk about the big, bad wolf in Red Riding Hood, he simply puts Grandma in the closet. With the little pigs, they run to another house when their house gets blown down. I don't think the children need the stories to be so scary. They are still quite captivated and love to retell them or act them out. However, the gingerbread man does get eaten at the end by the clever fox, but after all--he is just a cookie. The children in my class thoroughly enjoy stories, whether fairy tales, stories from my childhood or stories we invent together--it's all such a great exercise in conversation, literacy and community.

  • Natalie Kiefer

    I too would like to hear your comments on any negative impact that fairy tales may have on children. I enjoyed this article very much and plan to read more fairy tales to my preschool class this summer and during the school year. Thank you.

  • Joan Almon

    I appreciate everyone's comments about the article and especially about fairy tales. I do understand the concern about the scarier parts of tales. I had many of the same concerns when I first began telling them and avoided certain stories if I could not overcome my concerns. As adults we bring many associations to the tales and this may color the way we tell or read the stories - adding fright or drama to certain scenes. It's best to work through our own feelings about the tales before we bring them to the children, so that they can live with the purer archetypes. For a young child the wolf is not so strongly associated with a physical wolf as with the forces in life that tempt us to stray from the path of goodness and then leave us uneasy about the actions we've taken. Yes, grandmother is swallowed whole through no fault of her own, but she is revived with the help of the good huntsman and the cake and wine brought to her by Little Red Riding Hood. Going into the closet may seem milder (although children often have fears about dark closets) but the image of healing and resurrection is not nearly as powerful. I would argue that today's children need strong pictures of healing and redemption -- just think of the dystopian literature they devour as teens. Their souls are wrestling with mighty forces. Some children are frightened by the fairy tales, although I never had a parent tell me that was the case with any children in my classes. I think the fear comes from the dramatization of the tales. I remember doing a small fairy tale performance at a preschool I was visiting. One child entered the room terribly frightened because of past experiences with scary tales. By the end of the story she was smiling broadly and no longer clinging to her teacher. It's so important that we feel comfortable with the story, tell it in a calm but warm way, and choose stories well suited to the age group we have. Also, in the beginning I was terrified of telling a fairy tale and read books to the children instead. Then I told a simple fairy tale - the mother goat and her seven kids - and it was as if all the space between the children and me disappeared. It was such a beautifully intimate experience. I've been hooked on telling fairy tales ever since!

  • Sara Logan

    Joan, thank you for this great article. I'm putting together a curriculum for an early childhood program centered on storytelling, and this is just the kind of supportive material I want to offer the teachers to help explain *why* storytelling is so important, and indeed, why it is of of our ideal vehicles, along with free play and real work, for teaching and learning with young children!

  • Lori

    Joan, I appreciate your feedback and all that you do to keep play in childhood. I must say that in the age-group that I work with--3-5 year olds--the children view the wolf, for example, as a physical creature and not as a metaphor for the forces of life. These themes of healing and resurrection are much too deep for them. The children are very literal and I will continue to soften the stories to keep them less intense.

  • susan milligan

    Loved your article! I am a storyteller in a nursery school. I often do change fairy tales to make them less violent, but, interestingly, when the children tell me their own versions of stories many like to put in scary parts. A typical plot will find the protagonist eaten by a villainous beast of some sort followed by the protagonist escaping by punching or cutting a hole in the beast's belly. Usually the beast ends up dead. Some children enjoy acting out the role of the beast including dying on stage but many are too afraid to play a bad guy and don't want to pretend to die.

  • Shelley Ekmanis

    I always remembered how much I loved storytelling as a child. My grandpa was a great storyteller. His stories were usually about growing up in the olden days, but I was afraid of oral storytelling with my preschoolers because I did not feel very confident and because almost all of them were English language learners. But about 6 or 7 years ago I decided to try it with some little props that I made or found in the classroom. I thought that I will have an easier time keeping the attention of the children if I had props. It turns out they loved it and even the little ones were glued to the action. The real surprise came 2 years ago (when I had the full day class for the first time) after I had told Goldilocks - its usually the first oral story I tell. At nap time, an older child who spoke English pretty well, asked me if I would tell the story of Goldilocks instead of playing music. I was kind of skeptical because of the little ones who did not have much exposure to English yet and because I couldn't use the props, but I tried it. It was so quiet at nap time! Like they didn't want to miss anything. It made me so happy. Now I can really see the benefits, even if I am not the best story teller. The children always pay great attention to new stories and remember little details to help in the retelling and continue to ask for stories at nap time.

  • Lois Ingellis

    Joan; Arlene Rider & I were going to submit a similar article to expand on what we wrote back in March, but your article has confirmed everything we were going to highlight. One thing I have learned is to stay away from video, DVD's and visuals for the nursery rhymes. I think Bruno Bettelheim stated that the children can only imagine these as scary as they can handle when we 'tell' them. We have found this to be true, but we also have learned not to over dramatize our voices. I did scare my own grandchild years ago with my 'wicked witch' act. Much needed conversation!

  • Barbara

    I loved nursery rhymes as a child many years ago. I love to see the encouragement of teaching and learning nursery rhymes. I felt it was a teaching tool that was being forgotten. My toddlers has learned many such as Hickory Dickory Dock and Humpty Dumpty. I usually use visuals and actions as we sing or say them.

  • Lynne Pabst

    I am so happy to see someone with the same view as I have of the importance of storytelling and oral tradition before written tradition. I am so concerned about the emphasis placed on reading and putting books in to the youngest of hands while ignoring the role and art of storytelling in the literacy puzzle.

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